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Straight Up Conversation: Prepare U Founder Ryan Beale

By Rick Hess — May 24, 2018 9 min read
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Ryan Beale recently launched Prepare U, a new health curriculum for 13- to 18-year-old students designed to address mental-health awareness and help users navigate the challenges of adolescence, and was recently endorsed by the American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology. Ryan previously founded Chattertree, one of the first private family social networks. I recently had the chance to chat with Ryan about Prepare U and his efforts to promote mental health in schools. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: Ryan, what exactly is Prepare U?

Ryan Beale: Prepare U is a multi-faceted, experiential, social-emotional mental-health curriculum, developed by the Therapy Live team. It is designed to be a plug-and-play system that any qualified teacher can easily facilitate, either as a stand-alone course or as part of an overall health sequence. Throughout the program, students learn to identify mental and emotional risks and concerns, and how to effectively cope with these concerns in healthy ways.

RH: You started your career in commercial real estate. What brought you to this work?

RB: That’s a great question. A lot of life and painful experiences. I grew up in a family business that helped individuals start their own businesses. I wanted to scale this passion for helping families, so in 2006, I founded a company called Chattertree, the first private family social network. In 2009, while I was growing Chattertree and working to convince the public that platforms like Facebook were pulling us further apart, my brother Steve died by suicide. He was successful, outgoing, and a leader in our community, yet he struggled from childhood wounds that never got resolved. I believe that at 37 years of age, that unresolved trauma was ultimately what led him to a path where he could not find his way. I saw it coming, and feeling helpless as a loved one goes off the tracks is one of the most painful experiences a family member can endure. From that moment, I have been on a mission to prevent others from having to live with that pain. I wrote a book called Forty Days Off Facebook that shared a personal narrative of the grief I struggled with. In 2014, I returned to school and received my license in clinical psychology. I worked in our county crisis center doing crisis interventions with adults and adolescents that were struggling to find hope.

RH: How did you make the leap from crisis intervention to launching Prepare U?

RB: Over the past twelve years I have been developing tools to educate the public on family health, mental health, and combating stigma. There is nothing that saddens me more than hearing about another young person hurting themselves, someone else, or taking their own life. As a team, we have been committed to creating interventions at critical points where there are opportunities to curb the negative effects of trauma. My old high school had suffered the loss of four students and one teacher in the past three-and-a-half years. As someone that lost his big brother to suicide, I know that pain too well. In response, my team went full-force at creating an intervention and curriculum for teens that they could relate to and that would stick with them.

RH: Can you tell us a bit more about the program itself. How does Prepare U work in practice?

RB: Prepare U is a 15-class sequence comprising of one class period each. Some schools are using it to augment an existing health curriculum, and others are delivering it through freshman seminar classes or even English classes. The curriculum is a mixture of relevant video content that students watch in class, a series of facilitated interpersonal processes that occur in the classroom, a range of homework assignments that students complete on their own or with their parents, and additional educational materials and resources that are available to teachers, parents, and students. We engage students through modern, constantly updated video content that manages to capture their attention for long enough to get the process started. The students are then challenged and supported as they navigate a carefully curated set of experiences designed to elicit their active learning and participation. While the students learn some traditional content, most of the course is experiential and is designed to give them ample opportunities to increase their self-awareness, practice using tools to manage intense emotions, improve on their interpersonal effectiveness, form positive relationships, and learn coping skills.

RH: What type of training do health teachers get before teaching this curriculum?

RB: The Prepare U program has a detailed set of video and written materials to educate teachers and assist them in effectively implementing the curriculum. That said, we have found that teachers with no prior specialized training in mental health can be quite effective with only a few hours of course-specific training. In fact, the available literature supports the efficacy of teachers and similar school professionals being able to teach basic mental-health skills, such as rational emotive therapy, about as effectively as licensed professionals. While a teacher is not going to replace an experienced professional when it comes to crisis intervention and treatment, they can quite effectively teach basic skills and help students to learn how to cope with mildly and moderately stressful life events. In fact, some studies suggest that a teacher may get better results than an outside professional when it comes to the basics. This is probably because of preexisting relationships and trust.

RH: Some observers might argue that mental healthcare should be left to professionals, through counseling or therapy—that asking teachers to play this role may be problematic in terms of student privacy or quality of care. How do you respond to such concerns?

RB: First, we are not asking teachers to replace skilled mental-health professionals. To make an analogy with physical health, schools are quite comfortable having teachers teach basic physical health, discuss diet, and oversee exercise, yet no one would say they have to have the training of an MD or RN to do this effectively. We are asking teachers to teach basic skills and facilitate an experience. In the event of a severe crisis, a school is still going to follow the same procedures that they would otherwise. Second, this is a universal class. Just as we teach basic physical-health habits to more than just the students with an obvious physical health issue, we teach basic emotional- and mental-health habits to more than just the students with an obvious behavioral-health issue. Third, students are not being pressured to disclose secrets, but are invited to practice engaging in healthier ways with themselves, their families, their peers, and their community.

RH: You’re currently piloting this program at Michigan’s West Bloomfield High School. What metrics are you looking at to gauge success, and what are your plans for expansion?

RB: We are looking at a range of qualitative and quantitative outcomes such as student distress and risk and classroom and school culture before and after the course. Our study is ongoing in multiple schools and states. That said, the preliminary results are extremely promising. Our survey data shows that students have reported using the tools taught in the program to self-intervene when having troubling emotions, and to better support peers that were struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. They also described the Prepare U portion of their health-class sequence as their personal favorite in end-of-semester feedback sessions and ratings. Teachers have seen more engagement from students that have tended to be the least-engaged members of the class, and have reported a greater number of students willing to approach them for help or support around a range of stressful issues. And administrators have observed larger positive changes in the school culture as a whole since using Prepare U. Looking ahead, we also have a number of other schools that are running the program this school year and more scheduled to start next year.

RH: As you mentioned, there are plenty of school programs that emphasize physical health—eating right, exercising, saying “no” to drugs—but it seems like fewer place as much emphasis on mental health. Is that accurate? If so, why do you think this is, and how does Prepare U hope to change that?

RB: Sadly, this is often true. Even though as many as half of students may meet criteria for a mental-health disorder at some point during high school—and more than half of them will experience such a disorder over the course of their adult life—we as a society provide minimal education in this domain. A 2016 University of Michigan poll found that more than two-thirds of parents think that emotional and mental health should definitely be covered in health education, and yet less than one-third of parents reported that it is covered in their school. Prepare U is a way to address this deficit and teach students lasting skills. We want to see schools go beyond just “checking the box” and implement a comprehensive curriculum that will educate and empower students to live vibrant, healthy, and meaningful lives.

RH: Let’s stay with that for just a moment. I recall D.A.R.E., which seemed to enjoy limited success in combating drug use, and which now seems to have largely faded away. What makes you optimistic that things will play out differently for Prepare U?

RB: There are quite a few crucial differences between Prepare U and the D.A.R.E program. Our curriculum was created from the ground up by licensed clinicians in alignment with current and longstanding research in psychology, education, and contemporary media. The D.A.R.E. program has been found to have questionable efficacy in most of the research that has been conducted on it, and has even been listed as a potentially harmful intervention. In contrast, our team carefully selected techniques that are age-appropriate, can be effectively facilitated by teachers, and have a robust history of efficacy. While we will continuously update the program, we are convinced that its core aspects are undergirded by decades of clinical and educational research and experience.

RH: What’s the cost model here? And are you getting foundation or other support to help make this work?

RB: It’s $40 per student, and included in this is a personal handbook for each student, a copy of Forty Days Off Facebook, a journal, and additional self-care tools. Starting in fall 2018, students and facilitators will also get access to digital content through www.PrepareU.Live from professionals on topics related to personal wellness. Some schools are paying for this out of basic expenditures, some are applying for grants, and others are looking at innovative ways to partner with county and local agencies. We are also in conversations with several large foundations at the present time.

RH: Last question, big picture: What have you learned doing this work so far? What’s one big problem that you’ve encountered and that you’ve figured out?

RB: Tackling mental health is multi-faceted challenge. It takes a tremendous amount of mental strength, stamina, and perseverance to move the needle. The one big problem that we have encountered is how to build resilience, positively affect culture, and give our youth tools that they can come back to later in their life when they need them. I believe that we figured this out with the Prepare U mental-health curriculum, and over the next several years we will see that schools that implement Prepare U will have change on the ground that we could never have imagined prior.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.